Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

Demonstration in Support of Bolsonaro/ Editorial J/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s September 7 holiday brought supporters of President Bolsonaro out in droves to hear him – standing next to his Defense Minister and his vice president (a retired general) – threaten the country’s Supreme Court, which he accused of politicization and abuse, and Congress, which has angered him by failing to pass his pet electoral legislation replacing electronic polling with paper ballots. Although the day’s events did not lead to significant violence, they portend further tensions and perhaps major disruptions ahead.

Great trepidation preceded the Independence Day confrontations. Some observers even worried that the demonstrations might become a rehearsal for an “auto-golpe,” triggering violence that might provide the excuse for a military intervention. The fact that the demonstrations (and counter-protests) came off without significant violence was cause for a collective sigh of relief.

  • While the crowds in Brasília, São Paulo, and a few other cities were energetic, they were – with a few exceptions – peaceful. Although small skirmishes with the police broke out, the police did not escalate matters, join demonstrators, allow conflict to escalate between protestors and counter-protestors, or otherwise create conditions that might generate excuses for the re-imposition of “law and order.” Even though many of Bolsonaro’s supporters carried messages calling for an end to the high court and for military intervention, and a few uniformed officers wandered through the crowds, both state police forces and the military chose to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the fact that reasonable observers worry that September 7 could become a breaking point is itself a sign of how bad things have become. Indeed, the question now is less one of whether Bolsonaro will further ramp up tensions, but of how he will do so.

  • The weak president, whose net popularity rating has been in the negative double digits since March appears to be trying to seize back public attention after a series of embarrassing scandals enveloped his family and his administration. His recent statement, repeated to demonstrators on September 7, that he would only leave office “under arrest, dead, or victorious” suggests he is willing to heighten tensions to protect his self-interest.
  • Bolsonaro may have further isolated himself politically this week, alienating legislative allies from the transactional and fickle Centrão parties that back his administration. They are likely to melt away as the 2022 elections approach, looking to back a winner. Impeachment murmurings in Congress also picked up yesterday. His record shows that, as his hold on power evaporates, he will be increasingly willing to push matters to hold onto office.

The Independence Day crowds were impressive enough that Bolsonaro’s appetite for adulation may be sated for now, but his supporters remain an angry minority bent on defending their leader. The 13 months between Independence Day and the October 2022 elections will be marked by significant tension, exacerbated by the President himself, along with any of his allies in the military and police who are willing to be dragged along. 

  • An analytical survey by Wendy Hunter and Diego Vega points to a number of worrisome factors within the military, including a three-fold increase in the number of military personnel in appointed positions between 2014 and 2020; Bolsonaro’s decision to increase military salaries and budgets (against a general context of fiscal austerity); and his calls to deploy the military to “defend civil liberties” against those calling for a vaccine mandate. The military has “become more assertive in engaging in political debates” and “leverage[d] the relationship to advance their own interest.” Yet Hunter and Vega also note that the military high command has growing reservations about propping up an increasingly unpopular president, and they “do not anticipate a democratic breakdown through an institutional military intervention, a traditional coup or even an incumbent takeover.”
  • A possibly greater challenge to democracy may emerge from Brazil’s truculent state police forces. The run-up to September 7 suggested that Bolsonaro’s appeal among the police might be even more widespread than within the military, and high-ranking police officers in São Paulo state in particular have been worryingly active in national politics in recent weeks. A number of high-profile police officers who were elected to public office during the 2018 elections were present in the September 7 demonstrations. The increasing politicization of police forces is particularly perturbing because of their potential to disrupt street-level politics. But so far, police discipline has held, with only small groups of police, many of whom are retired, actively backing the President.
  • With the police and the military seemingly on the sidelines, one possibility is that Bolsonaro may encourage supporters to target the courts. It is no mistake that a weakened Bolsonaro has chosen the vulnerable Supreme Court as his foil, and one of his most frightening bits of bluster on September 7 was the threat not to comply with the Court’s decisions. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Court pushes Bolsonaro into a corner, ordering another ally to jail, for example – with the President and his allies responding with flagrant disobedience and heated rhetoric about the court’s alleged partisanship and illegitimacy.

September 8, 2021

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article updates one published on the Brazil Research Initiative blog.

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